Will a UN summit on migration change anything?

On September 19, the UN Secretary-General will convene a summit meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York to address current “large movements of refugees and migrants.” Its goal is to ensure a re-commitment to the core principles of refugee protection and discuss new frameworks to respond to the increasing number of people on the move.

Without wanting to pour cold water over a meeting that is, in and of itself, a positive move – after all, lack of coordination is often a key stumbling block to protection – the process is unfortunately fundamentally flawed. The summit brings together States, and therefore will be strongly influenced by government agendas. And those governments that are driven by the political need to limit mobility (keep people out), and by the imperative to contain and ghettoize them if they do get in, are among the loudest and most powerful.

On paper, restricting the movement of people might seem like a good way to reduce the global migration crisis. It is certainly politically expedient, and by limiting the number of people on the move eventually it might stop looking like a crisis. In practice, of course, this is almost impossible to achieve. And if it did happen, it would be at an unbearable cost to those for whom staying behind is simply not an option. People will still move, but they will do so without protection and below the official radar, which benefits no-one.

So why this fear of movement? After all, the movement of people is as old as humanity itself and rather than being made illegal, it needs to be accepted as the norm. Movement is one of the key coping strategies for people caught up in situations where violence and threat compels them to seek safety and livelihoods elsewhere. Yet mobility (forced or otherwise), rather than being seen as an important coping strategy for individuals, continues to be seen as a challenge to state sovereignty. As a result, it fails in fulfilling its potential to contribute to protection with policy structures, securitised narratives around refugees and migrants, and broader issues of xenophobia limiting its implementation. People are moving all the time. But they are often doing so despite the policy context, not because of it; and often in extremely dangerous circumstances as a result.

Of course, on paper the summit meeting is seeking to do exactly this – to regularise and monitor the movement of people. However, for as long as good intentions continue to be blocked by political priorities, in practice they will remain just that – good intentions.

At the same time, the containment and ghettoization of those who do manage to gain access to wealthier states continue to push refugees and migrants to the margins of societies, thereby emphasising and maintaining their exclusion.

That is not to say that refugees and migrants do not show extraordinary resourcefulness in finding spaces for inclusion. Indeed, many forge local forms of belonging, not least through seeking out economic and social resources despite broader political exclusion. However, the precariousness of their situation remains a dominant feature of their lives, and the parameters for discussion need to be broadened. In particular, there needs to be a far more robust focus on creating spaces for belonging that draw people in from the margins.

Indeed, it is interesting to speculate that if post-9/11 US foreign policy had not been driven by the idea of a “war on terror” but rather by a war on marginalisation, the current contours of displacement around the world, particularly in the Middle East, would likely be significantly different. The extent to which the war on terror has sustained and exacerbated marginalisation by creating foot soldiers living on the edges of society who can all too easily be deployed by those intent on generating violent extremism, has been a foreign policy disaster. At the same time, the extent to which this same “war on terror” has validated the growing securitisation of foreign policy has further entrenched the divide between insiders and outsiders.

Migrants – both forced and otherwise – have been particular victims of this approach. In a global context in which there is shrinking asylum space, and where increasingly refugees and migrants are being associated, however falsely, with violent extremism, it has become increasingly difficult for asylum seekers, migrants and refugees – regardless of categorisation – to access places of safety.

Of course, this is not the whole story. Many respond to the arrival of strangers with empathy and a determination to help. And equally, it is important not to characterise refugees and migrants merely as victims of these circumstances.

So will the meeting in New York change anything? Probably not. The fundamental problems facing refugees do not lie in the substance and structures of protection – after all, the principles of integration and safe movement are all there in the 1951 Refugee Convention. They lie in the political will to implement these ideas. Without addressing the realpolitik that continues to drive practice, therefore, any new ideas – or the repacking of old ideas – will continue to be palliative.

Instead, far more needs to be done to persuade governments of the benefits in ensuring that policies pull people into the centre rather than polarise and exclude them; and draw on, rather than negate, the creativity that refugees and migrants demonstrate in their quest to forge spaces of belonging.

In the meantime, refugees and migrants will continue to challenge the parameters of policy and practice, and will continue to test our political imaginations. And long may they do so. Rather than sitting around waiting for the world’s leaders to sign onto agreements, against the odds thousands of refugees and migrants are sending their children to school, generating livelihoods and negotiating their way through exile and through journeys, however precarious. But it should never be this hard.

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One thought on “Will a UN summit on migration change anything?

  1. Hi Lucy, great piece! I’m currently working on an article about the refugee crisis unfolding along Mexico’s southern border in the context of the upcoming summits. Would you be available for a quick phone chat this week? You can reach out to me by email at kvschlech@gmail.com. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.
    Best,
    Katie

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